My first published story

Way back in October 2009, I learned about a new online magazine, Ten Flash Quarterly, which had quarterly themed issues. The one for Winter 2010 was an encounter at a lonely crossroads at dusk. As soon as I read the theme, my subconscious created a story, “Dead Wife Waiting.” The editor, K.C. Ball, loved it and it appeared in the January 2010 issue.

In honor of the tenth year anniversary of my first published piece, I’m reposting it here.

Dead Wife Waiting

by Dale Ivan Smith

My dead wife waited for me at twilight on the road through the Sky Touch pass. She stood beside the midway marker stone where we first made love ten years ago. Skeletal corpses were strewn across the broken ground to either side of her, all the way to both canyons.
That drunken librarian at the tavern back in Bandy had set me on this trail, babbling on about a dead woman with a nasty sword guarding the pass.
Mira didn’t look like a corpse. She wore leather pants, the long gray coat I’d given her, and a sword strapped to her side. Her face was scarred, her eyes shadowed. They had been brilliant green in life.
Dying hadn’t been easy for her.
“Thomas, turn back.” Her words were low, husky.
I laid my hand on my six shooter. “Toshi told me you were undead, guarding this pass for Richter.”
She lowered her head. “Yes.”
I drew my gun.
She stepped in front of me. “Turn back.” She smelled like lilac. Her face was scarred, but her breasts were still full beneath her woolen shirt.
My head swam from the smell. “Mira, I miss you.” Damn it.
Her left hand trembled. “Please turn back.”
I blinked at sudden tears, clenching my jaw. “Listen, I have to stop Richter.”
“You will die if you don’t turn back.” She leaned forward. “Or worse.”
The triplets twinkled above in the darkening sky. The scent of lilac faded, leaving grit in my nose. I sneezed, fighting to keep my eyes open in case she lurched forward.
“You left me. And then you got yourself killed.” I cocked the pistol. Four rounds left, all silver. There wouldn’t be any more for a long while but I suppose using one on your undead wife could be forgiven.
Something in her eyes stopped me, a gleam in the shadows. I took a few steps back and sat on a flat rock, stretching my legs and resting my gun hand on my knee. My throat itched. Damn dust. Water sloshed in the canteen hanging from my belt but I didn’t trust her not to strike while I took a swig. She was always faster than me, and she still seemed pretty fluid for a moving corpse. The last animated dead I encountered had been back in Geartown. Some huckster summoned them using an old calling spell he’d scrounged up. They stank to high heaven, moldering something awful. Not a fleck of lilac in that air. I had fought off retching while blazing away with the old double barrel. The shotgun broke in that scrap.
“Why did you leave me?” The words tumbled out like lead weights. My left eye twitched but I forced myself to keep looking at her.
Something worked in her face. “Richter wasn’t going to leave you alone.”
I could smell ozone clearly now. The border stones glowed indigo in the gathering dark.
I rubbed the barrel of my gun. “I quit working for him. My choice.”
Her face hardened. “He wasn’t going to let you. Not permanently.” She shook her head, her velvet cascade of hair rippling.
“You don’t know that.”
She leapt forward, sword out, point thrusting toward me. The tip was inches from my throat. “You’re a bastard. You never saw past your own nose.”
My stomach twisted. “You still didn’t have to leave.”
The sword point wavered and then lowered. “It was the only way to save you.”
I let the air out slowly from my lungs. I was sure she would run me through. “The amulet.”
My wedding charm to her. Silver, like my pistol. She still wore it around her neck
The sword touched the ground now. “I wanted us to have that family you talked about all the time. But that would never happen with that monster around.” She sobbed quietly, without tears. I’d never seen a corpse cry before. I wanted to hug her for all I was worth, to comfort her. But when she’d left, she’d left royally pissed. Never wanted to see me again, she’d said.
And here she was on the winding road, captured by Richter and trying to keep me from getting to Reach.
Or was she?
“How’d you die?” I asked.
Her face was bitter in the wan light from the triplets. “I ran the bastard through with my sword. Black blood oozed out like mud. I realized then he was some new kind of undead. He just turned around and laid a hand between my breasts, and the next thing I know I’m beside this marker stone, waiting for you.”
“But that was a year ago.” A year spent waiting.
She nodded. “There were others, too, always at nightfall. The last forest island is far enough every traveler arrives at dusk.”
On foot was the only way you could go these days. The horses were all gone. I raised my gun and aimed between her eyes.
Her face was calm now.
“You want to die?”
She nodded. “Please. I never knew being dead would hurt so much.”
The silver bullet would do it. My finger tightened on the trigger then I hesitated. Magic’s a crazy quilt but I finally got the pattern straight in my head. Richter was a genius of a mage. People thought he’d figured out how to keep himself going after death. But animated corpses fell apart. Mira was in one still glorious piece. Undead stank. She smelled of lilac.
I reached out and lifted her chin with my fingers. Her skin felt cool, but alive. She’d been ensorcelled and I’d been set up. I turned and headed back toward town.
Mira cried out. “Thomas! You are turning back.”
I smiled for the first time in over a year. “You’re not dead. Neither is Richter. I’m betting I’ll find him in the library back in Bandy.”

END

Witch Way

This year’s Halloween story is another “prequel” of sorts about Elizabeth Marquez, hero of my series Agents of Sorcery. It shows what happens when a grown-up dressed as a witch visited then sixteen-year old Elizabeth Marquez on Halloween. It also reveals an important episode from Liz’s life that took place earlier that year as well. I hope you enjoy it!

You can read last year’s story, “Halloween Duty,” here. Thanks for reading!

WITCH WAY

Dale Ivan Smith

“What, what are you?” I sputtered. I brushed my bangs from my eyes, and looked around frantically.

A tiny person-shaped cloud of silver sparkles floated at the foot of the couch, outlined in purple. I sat up, scooting away from the figure. The copy of Teen I was reading slipped from my fingers and flopped on the floor with a bang.

The sparkle thing vanished. I blinked, and rubbed my eyes. Maybe it had just been a trick of the light. Or, maybe it was a flashback to that afternoon in June. There’d been sparkly things there, too, and fluttering gossamer wings.

I swallowed. I wasn’t supposed to think about that day.

I wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans, then fingered the charm necklace Doctor Brown had given me, to help me think about other things.

I thought about saying the mantra he’d taught me. Before I could begin, a sudden gong sound broke the silence, like the peal of a giant bell. I jumped off the couch, my heart pounding.

It sounded again. It was the doorbell.

Tonight was Halloween but it wasn’t quite dark yet, and I’d been sure to turn off the light, so there shouldn’t be any Trick or Treaters.

I was all alone in the house. Mom was back east visiting my sister Clara, who was still in the special hospital. Dad was at a special university conference in Seattle, so it was just me. But I was sixteen; I could take care of myself. Maybe it was a delivery, but I hadn’t ordered anything, and Mom and Dad always told me when something was supposed to come. If it were a door-to-door sales person, I’d just wait. Mom had clearly visible “no soliciting” signs outside. Not one, but three. That was my mother.

The doorbell rang again.

Dang it. Maybe I’d forgotten and left the light on. But it was still too early.

I crept to the door. The light switch for the outside light was in the off position. I stood up on my tiptoes to peek through the peephole. Being five-foot-nothing made things difficult, lots of things. I was one of the shortest girls in my high school, and our front door was a tall one.

A grown-up wicked witch stood on the porch. She looked like she’d just stepped out of the Wizard of Oz. The point of her tall, floppy black hat bobbed as she looked around. Her skin was green, just like the Wicked Witch of the West.

She held a wicker basket by its arching handle. I couldn’t see what was in the basket.

The witch turned to face the door. Her red painted lips curved into a huge smile and she fluttered long eye lashes. “Please open the door. I know you are in there, Elizabeth.” I could hear her clearly, even through the thick wood.

I shivered. She knew my name.

She cackled, just like the wicked witch from the Wizard of Oz movie. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

Her eyes reminded me of someone I knew.

Her smile softened. “I didn’t mean to scare you, Beth,” she said, her voice suddenly kind.

It was Grandmother Mary. Only Mary called me Beth. My father and my friends called me Liz. Mother always used my full name.

I unlocked the door and opened it. “Grandma?” I asked.

Mary nodded. “I thought I’d surprise you. A little surprise to go with a surprise visit.”

Her dress fluttered as she gestured at the high ceiling and huge living room. “Wow, this is a big house.”

I shuffled my feet. It was a big house. We’d only been in it for a couple of months. Mom wanted a change for us, after Clara had to go into that special hospital, after the—I pushed the memory away. The therapist mom had me see said dwelling on the memory of what had happened with Clara was “counterproductive.” I saw him twice a week.

His hypnosis helped dim the memory of that afternoon in the garden, last summer. When gossamer wings appeared and the air smelled so sweet and…“ I pushed the memory away.

Mary’s head was cocked to one side, reminding me of a crow. “What are you doing, honey?” she asked.

She looked at the couch. “How about we sit?”

She stepped over the fallen magazine and arranged her black skirts as she sat down on the couch.

I plucked up Teen, put it on an end table.

“I’m sorry about what happened to Clara,” Mary said.

“I’m not supposed to think about it,” I stammered.

Mary’s face became concerned. “Did Fiona tell you that?” She asked, using my mother’s name.

“Yeah. She and the therapist.”

Her dyed black eyebrows shot up. “She did?” Mary sighed. “You can’t suppress a negative event. Fiona should know that.”

She took my hand in hers, the long red add-on fingernails stroking my skin. “I’m sorry, dear.”

I bit my lip, tears welling up. This was stupid.

I pulled my hand away. “About what? You come here out of the blue, dressed up like the Wicked Witch of the West, how come?”

Mary smiled gently. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be here sooner.”

I felt a pang of guilt. Mary had come to our old house right after what had happened to Clara, but there’d been an argument and she’d had to go back across the country to Cape Cod.

“But why as a witch?” I asked. “I wanted to see you.” I had missed her. Her ditsy, spacey, happy attitude. She never worried. Unlike my mother, who was always concerned. She never called it worry, she was too button-downed for that. Mary was a free spirit.

“For two reasons.” She tilted her head and gave me a sly, sideways smile. “First, to help you remember.”

I rubbed a tear from my eye. “I’m not supposed to remember. Doctor Brown said I needed to let go of those memories. He helps me using hypnosis. Even taught me this little chant.” I closed my eyes. “Let go, let go, let…go.” It had sounded so stupid at first. I stroked the charm necklace.

“That’s an interesting piece of jewelry,” Mary said.

I opened my eyes. My face grew warm. “It helps,” I mumbled, suddenly embarrassed. “It’s stupid.”

Mary lifted the necklace. “No, it’s not. It’s sneaky.”

“Sneaky?” I asked. “I don’t understand.” I twiddled the necklace. The urge to chant Doctor Brown’s little mantra tugged at me.

Mary sighed, let go of the necklace. “Don’t you remember when I came dressed as a witch to your Halloween parties?”

I nodded. “You came as a different witch every year.” One year she wore a blonde wig and a too-tight bustier that made my dad’s face go red all the way up to his hairline. Another year, she came as a crone. Another as an ancient Greek witch. Another as a witch from Macbeth, with an actual iron cauldron on wheels. Wheels. I realized I was smiling.

She stroked my cheek. “It’s good to see you smile.”

“You just came to remind me of when you used to dress up as a witch?”

She shook her head. “There’s another reason.” She became serious, and her gaze searched my face.

I bit my lip. Mary was never serious.

“What reason?” I asked.

“To help you see the truth, and to understand what happened to you and Clara is part of something much bigger.”

“Let go,” I muttered, then caught myself. My fingers stroked the necklace.

“You have to decide whether you’re going to see the truth, or keep it hidden from you.” Her tone was kind. “It’s up to you. But you’ll have to take off that necklace if you do.”

I frowned. “What do you mean?”

She giggled. “You know, pull it over your head and put it on the table.”

She seemed more sixteen right then than I felt.

“It’s a joke, honey,” she said.

I blew out the air I’d been holding in, and nodded again.

“But it’s also the truth.”

“But what do you mean?” I asked again.

“I’ve already said more than I should have.”

I crossed my arms. “Grandma, you came here dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West, telling me you want me to remember, and to see the truth. You’ve already done more than my mom would think you should have. So, please tell me.”

“You’ll have to take off the necklace and be ready to feel afraid again.”

“What’s the big deal with the necklace?”

“It’s not what it seems,” she said. “And it’s part of the truth.”

My eyes narrowed. “Not what it seems?”

“Take it off and find out,” she replied.

This was dumb. But my fingers didn’t want to take it off. Doctor Brown said it would help. Mom said it would help.

Help me forget.

“I’m supposed to forget,” I mumbled.

“Only if you want to.” She waggled her fingers, and I suddenly remembered all the magic tricks she used to do. Making things disappear, pulling a quarter out from behind my ear, card tricks, all those things she did when she came dressed as a witch to my kid Halloween parties. She used to read my fortune, too, and then it would happen. Usually little things, like finding something I’d lost or discovering a super-rare Pokemon card was suddenly in my collection, stuff like that.

I remembered the sense that something tiny and invisible scurried around me when she did those tricks.

She smiled. “You’re remembering. But that’s only part.” Her smile faded. “But, if you take it off, you might feel fear. You certainly won’t see the world the same way ever again.”

The necklace was warm between my fingers. I could keep it on and let what happened with Clara fade away.

“Mom told me to keep it on. Why?” I asked.

“You’ll only know why if you take it off. And if you do, you and I will both be in hot water with her.”

 Big deal. I was always in hot water with my mother over something.

I took a deep breath, and began pulling the necklace off. It suddenly felt like it weighed a hundred pounds. It didn’t want to leave my neck, I realized. I pulled harder, raising it over my head and flinging it away from me.

Mary’s hand flashed out and grabbed it. “Gotcha,” she whispered. She looked at me. “I’m proud of you, Beth,” she said.

That day in the garden was hot for June. Clara sat cross-legged next to the Irises and sang this song she said she made up, a song to summon a fairy, she said.

I said fairies weren’t real.

Then it appeared, the size of a flicker, a little person with fluttering gossamer wings that sparkled. Sparkled in the sunlight.

“You have the blood,” it sang to us. “You have the sight. You can help make me real for always.”

I shuddered, eyes shut, and pushed the memory away.

A hand squeezed my shoulder. “It’s okay,” Mary cooed. “It’s all right. I’m here.”

I sobbed out what I’d seen then as she held me and rocked me back and forth.

When I’d finished, she held me for a long while in silence, still rocking me back and forth.

“You saw a fairy that Clara had created. You see, honey, the world is much wider and deeper than most people dream of. Mana flows all around us, a fifth force unseen but real. Our dreams, our nightmares, our fears and desires, all of things we collectively hold in our subconscious, use the mana to create manifestations, supernatural creatures– like the fairy.

The fairy. It had swooped at Clara and landed on her head. She had frozen, and her eyes had turned silver. Silver. The fairy sang a terrible song. “You are mine, mine forever more.” I’d screamed and then there’d only been blackness. When I came to, Clara and the fairy were gone, and mom said there’d been a gas line leak, and that Clara had been poisoned. I wasn’t allowed to see her.

I blinked.

Mary was outlined in purple. Her basket had a crystal ball in it, a crystal ball that shone gold from within. The necklace dangling from Mary’s hand, for an instant, it looked like a silver snake, scales moving as it slithered in her hand. Then it was just a necklace again.

“You are seeing the truth, sweetheart.”

“How can I see this stuff?” I stammered.

“Because it’s in your blood,” she replied. “Some people have a knack for seeing the Hidden. I do, my daughter does, and my granddaughters do, as well. Some on your father’s side do, too, but it’s not for me to say who they are.”

“You’re an actual witch?” My jaw dropped and my eyes widened. I waved my arms. “And you say it runs in the family?”

She nodded.

“Mom, too?” I shook my head.

“No, she’s a sorcerer who wants to be a wizard.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

Her smile returned. “But you’re beginning to.”

END

Agents of Sorcery launches! Read an excerpt from Book 1, Gremlin Night

My new urban fantasy series, Agents of Sorcery, begins with Gremlin Night, which is now available. Liz Marquez is a sorcerer-agent belonging to a secret organization responsible for enforcing the laws of magic, the Regulating Union for Normalizing Enchantment.

She spent time assigned as a guard in the Silos, a magical prison for supernatural creatures (called manifestations), but has finally been transferred back to field duty and is determined to prove she deserves the spot. A series of gremlin outbreaks and a new partner beg to differ.

Gremlin Night is available at all major eBook retailers:

Chapter 1

Burt the ogre was late. I squatted in heeled boots in a snowy alley in Peoria, calves burning, hair damp, stomach rumbling, all because an ogre crime boss took his sweet time to show up at his own blasted nightclub. Talk about a thoughtless jerk. My life would be so much easier if criminal manifestations kept better time. But that was the supernatural for you, always doing things on its schedule, never mine.

I fought a yawn. It had been a very long day.

The snow fell faster, and I pulled my motorcycle jacket closer around me. From where I crouched, I glimpsed the human bouncer as he paced on the steps outside, parka hood covering his face, wind-milling his arms to keep warm. His breath frosted the night air.

Freezing my behind off while assigned to a stake out wasn’t the worse part of being a sorcerer-agent for the Regulating Union for Normalizing Enchantment. No, the worse part was doing this stakeout solo, because my temporary partner, Nancy Kirk, a Seer, had decided she’d rather stay in the van parked six blocks away, casting her magical sight through binoculars. All because she listened to the Midwest front office when they said we needed to keep a low profile.

We always needed to keep a low profile. But the neo-gnome we’d gotten the tip from said Burt the Ogre was leaving town tonight and headed to Chicago. It would be a lot harder for R.U.N.E. to track him there.

My phone slithered in my jacket pocket. I slipped my hand inside and the phone coiled around my wrist. It was a R.U.N.E.-issue arcane phone. I should have had an ear talker, one of those little jeweled silver dragonling artifacts, but the Midwest division of R.U.N.E. didn’t have any to spare, especially not for someone passing through on a temporary assignment.

So, I was stuck with the arcane phone. I raised my hand. The phone looked like a big ebony bracelet to normal eyes; to mine, it was covered in scales, scales that projected messages before my eyes.

Words glowed in my vision. Get back to the van, Liz. Now.

Nancy and I had already had this conversation. Twice.

Any sign of Burt? I whispered. My words floated in front of me. Nancy would be seeing them in the same way. Arcane phones couldn’t be snooped on, or hacked. They were useful in other ways, too, since they were alive, like all manifestations, but fixed in form, since they were artifacts.

No. You must be freezing, she replied. Get back here.

A Hummer limousine, black and ridiculous, windows tinted excessively dark, drove past the alley and pulled up to the night club’s entrance.

Can’t, I replied. We have action.

You don’t know that! Nancy texted back.

The bouncer nodded at the limo, and spoke into what looked like a CB radio.

The door to the club opened and two big men bounded down the stairs to the limo. One of the men opened the limo’s side door.

A faint purple haze drifted out, almost too faint for me to see. Mana, the raw fuel for magic. With her seer’s eyes, Nancy must have seen it, too, and in more detail.

A female figure covered in tattoos and leather hopped down from the Hummer. Her long blood-red hair was pulled up into a top knot. Even from where I crouched, I could tell something was off about her. Her skull came to a point in the back, and her skin was bone white.

A whorl-kin. A bloodthirsty neo-type manifestation. They were getting more common. Criminal manifestations like Burt used whorl-kin because they had no remorse, they just lived to create fear and cause pain.

I was a sorcerer, so I could see manifestations and magic, while ordinary people only felt their presence, if they noticed them at all.

The whorl-kin scanned the area. I ducked back, my heart racing, just as she turned to face me.

I texted Nancy frantically. Bring the van. It had a lightning staff. That would take care of an ogre and a whorl-kin.

Stay put, she texted back. I’m calling the front office.

I shook my head. That would take far too long, and Burt would be long gone again. No time! I replied. I slipped my hand back in my jacket pocket, and the arcane phone uncoiled and slipped off my wrist.

I risked a look around the corner.

A huge figure in a London Fog overcoat emerged from the limo. Burt loomed over the whorl-kin. He was eight feet tall. He would have been an impressive figure on the basketball court, but the Compact forbid manifestations from playing in human sports leagues, or starring in movies. Exceptions had been made, but they were extremely rare, and usually thanks to some bribes and favor swapping in some of the other organizations in the Hidden.

Burt’s outfit dealt drugs, pimped out the down on their luck, ran gambling rings–all the usual vices. My jaw tightened. Far worse, Burt’s outfit also engaged in human trafficking. Yet Burt managed to stay free. Someone in one of the arcane organizations that dominated the Hidden world must be in his court.

R.U.N.E. had been after him for a long time, but he had always eluded us.

That changed tonight. I knew he had young women, maybe young men, too, in the basement of his nightclub. R.U.N.E. blew me off when I brought that up, saying there was no evidence. But, the thought stealer I’d spelled yesterday when we “interviewed” a middle-aged man who frequented Burt’s nightclub gave me a glimpse of young women chained to a wall. R.U.N.E. forbid us from using thought-stealers on ordinary “normal” humans. The Compact stated such thought reading was only to be used on magic-using humans accused of crimes. Come on, a creepy perv visiting Burt’s night clubs was an accessory to magic crime as far as I was concerned.

Burt brushed snow off his jacket, rings flashing on his huge fingers. He said something in a low rumble, and the whorl-kin nodded.

She was going to be a problem.

Just then, my scamper returned from its mission at the other end of the alley.

It looked like a cross between a ferret and a monkey, with bat ears, wearing a silver collar with a milky arcane pearl. The scamper was a loaner from R.U.N.E. Midwestern Resident Manifestation office.

The scamper slunk up to my hand. I stroked its sinuous neck with one finger while another touched the arcane pearl. The fresh memory of its journey flashed into my head. The scamper had snuck into the back of the nightclub, and down into the basement.

The basement was a labyrinth of rooms, a perfect place for criminal activity. If I could get in the back way, I could ambush Burt and company. Okay, so I was one five -foot- two twenty-five-year-old human woman versus a hulking ogre and his private army. Crazy, but doable.

My phone stirred in my pocket again. Had to be Nancy, but I left the phone where it was. I didn’t have time to waste.

I gave the scamper a peanut, then followed it out the far end of the alley and around to the back of the club. “Thanks for the help,” I told the scamper. Time for it to head back to its nest at the Chicago castle. I hadn’t exactly asked for permission to take it with Nancy and me, and I’d kept Nancy in the dark about it. Simpler that way, for everyone.

The scamper nodded at me, then whirled around and darted into a drainpipe. Being a scamper manifestation meant it could take a secret way back to Chicago. I’d have to take a train, plane, or an automobile since I’d already used the teleportal there tonight, and it was one way. Rules. The arcane, which included we sorcerers, lived and died by them.

The street behind the club was filled with dumpsters and overturned shopping carts. There was a small loading dock off to one side. The door was a steel job with three locks and a little viewing window, currently shut.

#

Luckily for me, I had a magical lockpick, also on loan from R.U.N.E. Chicago. Okay, I borrowed it without permission, but I’d return it as soon as this assignment was completed.

The lockpick was a telescoping silver rod that expanded from two inches in length to a foot. It shivered and clicked into place. Like all magical artifacts, it was alive in its own way, trembling and hungering to fulfill its purpose. I stroked the lockpick with my pointing finger. “Descuia,” I said, unlock in Romanian.

The lockpick shuddered. The three locks clicked open, one by one, followed by a rattling sound. I opened the door.

Hopefully the back door was unguarded.

It wasn’t.

A surprised looking man in an ill-fitting suit, holding a sub-machine gun, stood there, staring at me wide-eyed and slack-jawed. Magic will do that to ordinaries, if you’re lucky.

My luck wasn’t going to last long.

I pointed my left fist at him. I wore a silver ring with a tiny sculpted silver bullfrog mounting it, mouth yawning open.

“Sleep,” I told the guard. Blue-tinged vapor visible only to a sorcerer gushed from the bullfrog’s mouth and into the man’s nostrils.

He raised his submachine gun, just in time to drop it as he slumped to the floor, the gun clattering beside him. He’d be out for a couple of hours, and nothing could wake him.  The sleep ring should be standard issue, but they were difficult to craft. Policy stated that only Burners could use them, not Binders like me. We tried to avoid tangling with normal humans, but sometimes you had to, despite policy.

Lucky for me I’d found a sleep ring in the armory when no one was looking. Too bad it only had the one charge.

One guard down. Who knew how many after that. Actually, the plan was not to go through many, because there’s no way I could, and still get Burt. The ogre was the point of this exercise.

One of my trainers back at R.U.N.E.’s Academy had told me if you train enough, you can act without fear taking over.

I was trying to do that here. I swallowed, and pushed back the worry, the fear, and pants-wetting panic. I had to keep moving.

My stomach churned at the thought of the women being held here, treated like meat at a butcher shop. Heaven only knew how long they had before they were auctioned off, or worse. I’d heard rumors that Burt liked human flesh, particularly young women, but R.U.N.E. had nothing on file. Proof of that would have brought the roof down on the ogre, but there was nothing.

I slipped around a kitchen area. Now I could hear the thudding bass from the dance party above. The club proper occupied floors two and three, with private rooms above it, while the lair was below this floor.

The door to below was off to my right, at the end of a short corridor. Old-style light bulbs shone inside wire ceiling fixtures. I waved the lockpick at the door, and said, “Unlock,” this time in Urdu. You could reuse a spell another time the same day, but you had to use a different language.

Click! I pushed the door open, listened. Floorboards creaked, and the bass thumped distantly. Voices drifted up from the basement. I crept down the stairs and crouched just above the bottom step. A big room spread out before me, lined with tables filled with vials and boxes. Had to be a drug shipment.

I saw doors at the far end of the room. If they had any cells to hold girls they’d kidnapped, they’d likely be there.

Seven muscled crooks, in all leather coats, loomed around a table in the center. A gnome, dressed in a white lab coat, blue silk shirt and tailored slacks, stood on the table as he did the talking. Light glinted off his bald head and gold-rimmed glasses. The thick lenses gave him a fish-eyed look.

“We have three cargoes to deal with. The boss just arrived and will want the scoop.” The gnome stopped, long nose quivering as he sniffed the air. “I smell a sorcerer.”

Bunny-rabbit panic froze me. He could smell my blood. Curses.

I had two binding spells prepared. Looked like I was going to have to use one right now, no excuses.

Latin fell from my lips like lead, the familiarity of it chasing away fear as I whispered the words. “Thy essence I bind to me. Thy magic I wield. The action is my command. Obedience is thine order. The Law thee must follow.”

The gnome stiffened, his face contorting. “W-h-o?”

Silentio,” I murmured in Latin.

The gnome fell silent. The crooks stared at him, then peered around the room, hands straying to the weapons under their coats.

I couldn’t bind them. But I could persuade them. I hated going through all my talismans and charms like this. The crooks drew knives, pistols, and in one case, a shotgun, and faced in my direction.

I walked to the bottom of the stairs, and raised a charm I’d been holding in my left hand, shaped like a dove. Not my idea, but you go with what you have.

“Listen, boys, I’m a reasonable type,” I said. “Obey me,” I intoned, in English.

“Who the hell are you?” the nearest crook demanded. He blinked. His face and the faces of the other thugs slackened as the charm’s power took hold. “Yes, mistress,” he said, voice low and tone obedient. “Yes, mistress,” echoed the others.

I rolled my eyes. Great, just great. Whoever had crafted this charm in the R.U.N.E. workshop had put a sexist aspect into it.

Didn’t matter. I needed to get moving. I only had one binding spell left, and the ogre and his nasty whorl-kin bodyguard would be here in moments. Gods, I hated nights like tonight. It would be nice if just once I had real backup, not a partner like Nancy who insisted on following cramped bureaucratic procedures that didn’t work in the field.

I pointed at the speaker and the two men beside him. “You three, guard the stairs. Don’t let anyone past.” The three nodded and ran up the stairs.

The gnome still writhed on the tabletop from the effects of my binding spell.

“You’re a tough cookie,” I told him. A whiff of musty old books drifted up from him. Not a typical gnome. He looked like an ancient manifestation, but smelled like a new one. Modern manifestations had all kinds of weird traits. His must include resistance to binding magic.

“Settle, and relax,” I told him in Latin. He did neither.

Purple fluid dribbled from his mouth. “Cease!” I commanded him.

He screamed soundlessly and fell, banging off the table and smacking the floor, hard.

Stronger tremors wracked his body, as if he was having a seizure.

Then golden light burst from him. I stepped back, shielding my eyes. When I opened them again, he had vanished, leaving only his clothes, shoes, and glasses.

I swallowed. He’d self-immolated. That shouldn’t have happened, but his resistance to magic must have been even stronger than I realized, and my spell’s overcoming that resistance made him self-destruct. A twinge of guilt ran through me. He had served a criminal who enslaved humans, but I wouldn’t have destroyed him. Unless he’d been found guilty of murder, R.U.N.E. would have sent him to the Silos.

Gunfire banged from the direction of the stairs, followed by shouts. I had even less time to find those women.

I gestured at the four crooks remaining in the storeroom. “Defend this room,” I ordered, and sprinted to the far side. I leaned my head against the first door, and listened. No shouting for freedom from the other side.

The lockpick unlocked the door. I swung it open, slowly, holding my wand like a sword, and pointed around the room. Crates stacked from floor to ceiling lined the walls. There was no other exit, and nothing living, human or manifestation, inside. I lowered my wand.

The second door had three locks on it, like the door at the nightclub’s back entrance. It was a double-wide door, too. Promising, though it did eat up three more charges on the lockpick. I only had a few left now.

Beyond the big door ran a corridor lined with doors on both sides and another big door at the far end.

I pulled out my phone and subvocalized another text to Nancy. Exploring Bart’s dungeon. Gun battle in progress above. Send help. I left the phone coiled around my left wrist. If humans saw it now, they’d probably think they were seeing an ebony cuff bracelet. If they saw the arcane phone for what it was, they’d glimpse the actual supernatural world. That could lead to all sorts of problems, but I had to take the risk.

The screen said “message not yet received.” The nightclub’s floors and walls shouldn’t have blocked the message. Perhaps something else had. Fine. I’d just keep moving.

The doors along the corridor were all unlocked. The first one was another storeroom. Pantry shelves lined the walls, filled with cans of dog food, bean-less chili and stew. Burt liked his protein.

The next four rooms were bedrooms, with bunk beds. Made up and empty, obviously for guards.

Curse it, I swore silently, and headed to the big door at the far end. It was locked. Figured.

My lockpick still vibrated softly. I prayed it had enough left to open the big door.

One lock went click. A second went click. A third went click. The door wouldn’t budge.

There was another lock. The lockpick trembled in my hand. It didn’t have enough strength left.

I bit my lip, hesitated, then glanced at my phone’s screen. My last message still not received.

I switched the lockpick to my left hand and reached inside my jacket, to a hidden pocket. My fingers fumbled at the snap, but finally opened it and grasped the spiked iron ring-shaped blood amulet. there. I licked my lips. This was the last thing I was supposed to be using. But just a little, just this once, I told myself, and pressed my fingers onto the spikes. Hot needles of pain stabbed my fingers. I jerked, nearly dropping the blood amulet. I managed to hang on to it, took my pain and pushed mana into the lockpick. Its trembling grew and I commanded it to open the last lock.

A soft click sounded. I let out my breath and I put the blood amulet back in its hidden pocket.

I pushed the door open. Beyond was an upscale penthouse style suite.

There were bedrooms, a living room, and media room, and a kitchen. All were empty. I did find lots of lingerie, and some bedroom equipment, so to speak, that made me twitchy. Burt had definite tastes in that direction.

I looked in all the closets, tried to find hidden doors, but nothing.

More gunfire echoed from the storeroom.

Sorcerer’s tears, I swore silently. I texted Nancy. Down in basement. At least three manifestations on site. One self-immolated. Two more, the ogre and a whorl-kin, are headed my way. Let R.U.N.E. know. Okay, so I didn’t have absolute proof the two manifestations were coming after me, but Burt would come after any threats to his business. And the whorl-kin lived to rend and tear flesh.

An icon of an ear popped up on the phone’s screen, next to the list of my messages. Received. Maybe Nancy would finally do something.

I hunkered down behind a huge black leather sofa in the media room, and faced the door to the hallway. I had one spell remaining, which I had to cast on Burt. After all, he was huge. I could use him against Lady Nasty.

Gunfire crackled and popped. Shouting from human throats turned to screams. I plugged my ears. I’d made the guards defend the room against Burt and his bodyguard, essentially ordering them to die for me. My stomach clenched. But what choice I had I had? The guards were working for a murderous criminal, and probably had killed for him.

I peeked over the top at the door, binding knife in my hand, a long, thin blade. Gesturing with the knife, I began chanting in Irish.

The ogre should come barging in at any moment.

Minutes ticked past. I checked my phone. There was no reply from Nancy or R.U.N.E. Sweat trickled down my back. This was not good, not good at all. I was hell hound chow if I didn’t get backup. Sure, I’d charged in here, but Nancy had to follow. The phone said messages received. Then why hadn’t she answered me? A nasty though popped into my head and I shivered. Perhaps something had happened to her.

Right at that moment a panel slid back in the wall kitty corner from the door. My eyes widened.

The whorl-kin strode through the secret door I’d missed, and stopped.

She raised her head and sniffed the air like a wolf tracking a sheep. “Surrender and I’ll kill you quickly. Resist,” she rolled the word around her tongue like a grape she was about to chew, “and you die slowly.”

I was an idiot. Why would Burt come in when he could send his assassin?

I stood. “How about you work for me?”

Her eyes were red-tinged. She laughed, showing a mouth full of glittering needle-like teeth. “How about I eat you, slowly?” She sauntered toward me, each step a promise of pain, her grin widening as she neared.

I brandished my binding blade. “Hello! Sorcerer here.”

Her grin widened even further until it threatened to split her face. “I love the taste of sorcerer’s blood.” She reached her arms wide. Her fingers were claws now. Her muscles tensed, like a lion about to pounce on its prey.

“By the power of the Laws, I bind thee to me,” I said, in Irish.

The whorl-kin’s tattoos covered her arms and neck, snapping wolf jaws. They began glowing a blood red. Her grin turned into a savage snarl. She leapt at me. I threw myself out of the way and she slammed into the wall behind where I’d been. I thrust the knife at her, twisting it in the air, shouting the spell.

Tendrils of gold shimmered from the blade’s tip and shot into her blood-red tattoos, making them flare gold. She struggled against the binding spell, her breath hot on my face. She snapped her jaws. “I will eat y—” she stopped in mid-threat. A violent tremor ran through her. Her eyes widened, then she slumped, her head down.

I fought to keep my voice even, and keep the screaming fear from my words. “You will obey me.” My blood thundered in my ears. I’d done it. Barely, but I’d bound the psycho manifestation, and held her essence, the mana that made her the supernatural creature she was. That meant I could command the whorl-kin to do my bidding.

Exhaustion washed over me. Lack of food, not enough sleep, the rush of adrenalin, all demanded their cut from me, and I didn’t have enough energy to pay. I wanted to sleep for a hundred years. But sleep was the last thing I could do at the moment.

I still had the ogre to deal with.

At least now I had a new tool to use against him.

“Tell me your name,” I ordered.

“Cindy.”

Cindy? I figured something more tough sounding, like Athena, or maybe Bellatrix. Cindy was the last name I’d have guessed.

It made me think that the whorl-kin had been conjured, rather than born from the collective subconscious.

A sorcerer or worse, a wizard, must have created her.

Right on cue, Burt’s voice boomed from the hallway outside the media room.

“Your only way out is through me, sorcerer-agent.”

“Here I was hoping to surprise you with my big reveal,” I shouted back.

“This can go two ways.” His voice sounded like boulders crashing together. “A quick death for you, or a very slow one. It’s up to you.”

I made a buzzer sound. “I’ll take option number three.”

“Crazy human. Fine, then we’ll play this rough way. Seize her!” Burt’s voice thundered.

Burly guys charged into the room, brandishing brass knuckles.

I hated myself for my next order to Cindy. “Stop them,” I said.

She whirled toward them like a psychopathic ballerina, her claws extended.

“Look out!” One guy shouted, before she sliced open his throat.

Two more men fumbled for their guns. She kicked one in the stomach, sending him tumbling backwards and crashing into glass shelving on the far wall. She whirled on the second, opened her jaws and engulfed his face with a sharp snap. His body thrashed and fell, spraying blood from where his face used to be.

She spin-kicked a third man into two more who were just coming through the door. The men stumbled and fell. She raked them with her claws. More screaming erupted.

In seconds five men lay dying on the carpet.

I bent over and dry heaved. What in the seven hells had I done? There was no stop order for a whorl-kin. Only a kill setting. I knew that in the back of my mind, but stupidly hoped it would be different this time.

A huge form loomed in the doorway, brandishing a machete-like blade. Burt.

Cindy leapt at him, arms outstretched. The ogre slashed at her right arm, severing it. She screamed, a high-pitched glass-shattering eruption of sound.

Burt staggered back. I clutched my ears.

She lunged at his face. He blocked with his left arm. She bit hard into it. He grunted, hurled her down onto the carpet, and slashed her stomach open. Purple ichor-like blood, the blood of a manifestation, boiled in the air, and then her form boiled away, leaving only a blackened smear on the carpet. Manifestations don’t die like humans. They dissolve.

The black smear began smoldering.

Burt reared up, rage contorting his already rugged features into a granite mountain-like appearance. His eyes blazed red.

“I’m going to tear you apart, bone by bone!” He roared.

I didn’t have much time. I was out of binding spells, and it would take far too long to cast another one. My fingers fumbled again at the hidden pocket in my jacket. The amulet slipped over my finger.

I was forbidden from doing what I was about to do, but when you have no choice but to leap over the edge, you leap.

Pain lanced up my arm as I rolled the points of the blood amulet into my open palm. Tears filled my eyes. I managed to hold back my scream.

“With this blood, I power my magic,” I chanted in Coptic.

Purple ichor streamed from the wound in the ogre’s arm. He took a step toward me, shaking his head.

Blood magic was forbidden, but I didn’t have a choice.

I used it to fuel another binding spell. But this one wasn’t a command spell.

I rattled off the spell in Coptic as Burt lumbered toward me, breathing hard. More blood spilled from his shoulder and chest. Cindy had done more harm than I’d glimpsed at the time. He slashed the air in front of him with the machete.

“And I’ll gnaw each and every one of your bones,” he bellowed.

Binding magic, by the Laws of the Compact, is meant to control, not to destroy, and destroying a manifestation with it takes a great deal of time.

Unless you fuel that spell with your own blood, which is what I was doing.

Blood pooled in my palm, and trickled down my arm. I flicked it in the air.

The ogre snarled and swung at me.

I ducked. His wounds had slowed him just enough for me to avoid losing my head.

“Burn,” I commanded in Coptic.

Flames burst from him and he howled like a hurricane. I staggered back. Heat washed over me, and I choked from the stench of burning supernatural flesh. Then, he became a tower of flame and his howl rose. I scrambled away, coughing.

Burt fell onto the carpet and the fire began to spread, his huge body blocking the door.

I was trapped. There were no smoke alarms down here, and it wouldn’t have mattered if there were, I’d be long dead before any fire fighters arrived.

#

I looked around frantically, and spotted the hidden door, now open, that Cindy had come through. I sprinted into the secret passage, which was narrow and dark. Flickering light from the blaze growing behind me illuminated the hall enough to see it had bare stone walls, and a door at the far end. I coughed again. Already smoke filled the corridor.

I stumbled to the door, praying that it wasn’t locked. It wasn’t. I yanked it open. Even gagging from the billowing smoke, my nose wrinkled from the stench of fecal matter and unwashed bodies. A lone lightbulb hung from the ceiling, and illuminated the cramped little room. A half-dozen women in dirty clothes huddled hand-cuffed to a pipe running around the room. Their faces were smudged, and their hair greasy from sweat and not being washed. Beside each was a bucket.

A closed door was on the opposite wall from me. That must lead up. Cindy had to have come this way.

They’d been treated worse than animals. I needed to get them out there. They lifted their heads and looked at me duly.

“I’m here to rescue you,” I said, fighting back a sob.

Smoke billowed into the room. I coughed again, and the women began coughing weakly. There was a little table beside the door I’d come through, and a couple of bowls on it, the kind you might throw keys in. But there were no keys.

My lockpick, did it still have enough juice to open six sets of handcuffs? My hand ached from the blood magic I’d used. Blood magic was dangerous, which was why it was banned by the Compact. Three times in one day was the limit, and even then, it could kill the user.

I drew the lockpick and strode up to the first woman. Her eyes widened. “I’m getting all of you out of here. Now.” I managed to say it with confidence. Now, if I only felt that.

I closed my eyes, concentrating. “Open the locks,” I whispered in ancient Greek, the lockpick cold and motionless in my hand. Smoke tickled my throat. I ran and closed the door. Idiot! I snarled at myself. I’d gotten myself and these women into this fix. I should have looked for keys on Burt, only he had immolated, thanks to my blood-magic fueled binding spell making him combust.

The lockpick suddenly trembled. An electrical tingle ran up my arm. A chorus of clicks echoed in the room, followed by clattering of metal on cement as the handcuffs fell to the floor.

“What just happened?” One of the women shook her head. The six of them looked about a thousand years old, but I guessed they were in their late teens or early twenties. “Handcuffs just don’t unlock themselves, do they?”

“We got lucky,” I said. “Come on, we need to leave, now!” I led them through the back door, down a short hall and through another door which opened into the store room. The place was littered with bodies. My stomach rose. I’d caused this. But, what choice had I had?

One of the women kicked a corpse. Two more spat at the bodies. “You deserve to be dead,” another woman snarled.

I shook myself. “Let’s go.”

I led them up the stairs and toward the back door, then skidded to a stop. Brimstone,I swore silently. This was a night club. There were people here. People who would die. I’d have those people’s lives on me, too.

That’s when I saw Nancy, in her black coat and knitted cap, white hair in a long pony tail, standing with a group of pinched-faced R.U.N.E. agents in business suits by the back door.

Heaven help me, I wanted to give her a hug, but I settled for a quip. “About time you showed up,” I said. “I freed the women the front office says weren’t here.”

Nancy glared at me. I grinned back at her, relief flooding me. The freed women piled up behind me, looking at Nancy and the grim-faced suits in wonder. “Are you FBI?” A woman asked.

One of the suits was a woman with a helmet hairdo, who looked about forty-five. She flashed a badge at them. “That’s right, Agent Barker.” Helmet hairdo nodded at another suit, a man.  “Agent Tyler will help you out.” He led the women outside.

Helmet hairdo strode up to me. “Very funny. What else?”

“There’s a fire downstairs.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I’m guess that’s your doing?”

I shrugged, trying to look nonchalant while my heart still raced like a cheap sedan’s engine being floored. “I took care of our target.” I nodded at the door to downstairs. “A fire did get started in the process.”

The other business suit, a man, gave me a sour look. “You mean you started a blaze in the process.”

I nodded. “I already said that. I’m sure you have a water spirit or two on hand,” I pointed out, trying to keep things light.

“Amusing,” helmet hairdo replied. You could cut her sarcasm with a knife.

Her partner drew a titanium and blue-steel summoning rod from his coat. It was obviously dragon forged. The rod thrummed as he held it.

“The fire’s downstairs.” I liked to be helpful when I could.

His sour look grew sourer. “We ought to charge you for this,” he said. “Have to call in a few favors to use this. These manifestations aren’t easy to summon, you know.”

I put my hands on my hips. “Excuse me for taking out a criminal ogre.”

He ignored me and began a summoning ritual, gesturing with the rod.

“There are ways to do it without starting a blaze,” helmet hair said. “You realize we have to call in more favors with our local contact, to avoid getting the fire department and local police involved. That would be an even bigger mess to clean up.” She noticed my wound. “What happened to your hand?”

I shrugged. “Wounded in the fight with the ogre. He had a nasty machete.”

Another suit slapped a heal patch on my hand. I winced for a second as the magical band aid went to work.  

More R.U.N.E. personnel arrived, including burners in their gray suits and thin sunglasses. Their job was to burn out any memories, so that ordinaries who might have witnessed arcane shenanigans wouldn’t realize that the supernatural was real. You only needed to call in the burners when things had really gotten out of hand. Okay, so maybe things had a little this time. But, hey, I had taken care of the ogre and whorl-kin before the clubbers had wised up.

A wet whoosh sounded and a person-sized waterspout popped into existence, a fine mist making us blink furiously. The water spirit spun down the stairs toward the billowing smoke.

Clubbers wandered in from the front—a man with a silk shirt and two women in slinky dresses hanging on his arms.

“You shouldn’t be here,” helmet hairdo told them.

“I smelled smoke,” the guy said.

The burners went up to the trio, waved their wands. Translucent memory snakes emerged from the burners’ sleeves and coiled around the three.

Their eyes widened for an instant, then their expressions went blank.

I looked away. I never had the stomach to watch burners at work.

The whole time Nancy watched me with a granite-eyed gaze from the back door.

“See, I told you we could bring him down,” I told her.

“I’m surprised Tomlinson lasted as long as he did as your partner,” she said acidly.

I ignored the remark. “We got the job done. The front office will appreciate that.”

Nancy held up a parchment scroll. I gulped. Even rolled up, the glowing blue characters of the message were visible. The R.U.N.E. pentagram seal had been broken. She’d read it.

“The New York front office wants to speak with you. You are to report to the Brooklyn castle at once.”

“We’re not finished here,” I said. “We need to search the place.”

“Oh, we’re not finished, but you are,” she retorted, looking down her nose at me. “You need to take the teleportal to the Brooklyn castle. Enjoy the ride. I suspect it will be your last as a field agent.”

New story–Halloween Duty

Here’s a new Halloween story, a prequel to my new series, when Liz was working with her first partner. Neither of them have the Halloween spirit.

 

 

Halloween Duty

Dale Ivan Smith

I’m Elizabeth Marquez, Sorcerer-Agent for R.U.N.E.

I used to love Halloween, but after my sister and I discovered real magic and its hard consequences, I lost that love. Once upon a time All Hallow’s Eve was when the seam between the Hidden world of magic and the supernatural opened into the Everyday world, and ordinary people could readily see manifestations—especially goblins, ghosts, spooks, boggarts, and the fleeting glimpses of those manifestations showed up in far greater numbers.

Not so these days. Halloween went all commercial a long time ago, and in this age of smart phones and the internet, people over the age of six didn’t have any use for Halloween except as an excuse to dress up and clown around at parties.

Really, it’s a lousy holiday. People give out teeth-destroying quantities of candies to kids dressed up like pop culture superheroes, cheesy witches, and princesses.

And, on top of that, the numbers showed fewer manifestations on Halloween than almost any other night of the year.

But my bosses at the Regulating Union for Normalizing Enchantment still took Halloween seriously. They ordered Tomlinson and I to pull Halloween Duty. Didn’t matter that I’d asked for the night off.

I had an actual date lined up, for the first time in far too long. Will was a charmer, and also someone always on a business trip. Heaven only knew when we’d next have a chance at a date.

Orders were orders, so Tomlinson and I walked out to his Ford sedan to leave on a pointless patrol in the greater Portland metro area, and wait for Ayesha, our Duty clairvoyant, to tell us about an extremely unlikely outbreak of manifestations. Spooks, spirits and goblins, not cursed likely at all.

Someone had left on a note on the Ford’s windshield. “Believe in Halloween,” it said.

Hilarious. Tomlinson grunted when he glimpsed it. He looked like a white-haired scarecrow in that old trench coat of his.

Two hours later we’d driven from Lake Oswego to Gresham, then through Portland and the tunnel, heading west on the Sunset to Hillsboro. Tomlinson grumbled the whole way, driving annoyed. He hated Halloween as much as me.

He’d just taken the Highway 47 exit near Forest Grove, to turn back around when a golden light fluttered outside my passenger window.

Tomlinson pulled over. I rolled down the window and a fairy-sized being landed on my side door. It was dressed like a leather punk, and wore its tiny hair in a purple mohawk. A messenger sprite. An ordinary person wouldn’t have seen anything in the dark—the golden glow would have been invisible to them. In daylight, the sprite would have looked like a butterfly to an ordinary person.

“Duty clair says eleven ordinaries have been panicked by magical activity in Hillsboro.”

That was bad. Panic was level 2 on the Fright scale. We had to put a stop to whatever was happening before ordinary people got the idea the supernatural was actually real.

“Where?” I asked.

The sprite closed its tiny eyes, held up a tiny hand. “Panic is centered near a house on Harding Street,” it said. It read off an address. “Genie Bradley says a new development on the north side of town.” Genie Bradley was one of R.U.N.E.’s resident super-knowledge spirits. Our old-school answer to artificial intelligence.

“Please give us the scoop on the manifestation causing the frights,” I told the sprite.

“Unable to comply,” it said.

I pursed my lips. “What do you mean?”

“We have no info on any potential manifestations.”

I exchange surprised glances with Tomlinson. That was weird.

“Ayesha can’t get any more detail?” I asked it. Clairs usually gave a lot of detail on a manifestation.

The sprite shook its tiny head. “Good luck,” it said, and zoomed off into the night.

I shook my head. “Curses,” I griped. “We have to go in blind.”

“This sucks,” Tomlinson groused. He did a U-turn, and headed back to the highway.

Harding Street was in a brand-spanking new Hillsboro subdivision. The streets were lined with young elms that had lost most of their leaves by now. We passed clumps of little trick or treaters. Princesses and princes, aliens, werewolves, and a lot of costumes popular when I was five, the last time my mother took Fiona and I out on Halloween, nearly twenty years ago.

Tomlinson muttered something about retro-costumes and greasers.

“What’s that, old man?” I asked him. It’s always fun to poke him about his age. I’m twenty-four and he’s well into old, on the far side of sixty.

“Nothing,” he muttered. Usually Tomlinson would open up, but this Halloween Duty obviously burned him even worse than me.

The house in question didn’t look especially scary. Soft golden light shined from behind closed curtains, and a jack-o-lantern grinned pleasantly from the porch. The maple in the front yard wasn’t festooned with skeletons, cobwebs or bats, and the neatly trimmed lawn had no tombstones on it, in stark contrast to the rest of the yards. The owners of those had clearly dropped major bucks at the Halloween store.

It was already nine-thirty, but a group of little kids dressed like superheroes, shepherded by a man and two women, trooped down the street toward the address the sprite had given us.

“Pretty late for little kids,” I said. Tomlinson parked the sedan about half a block from the house in question, facing it.

A group of teens in street clothes, with a single one wearing a mask of a former president worked the opposite side of the street. The house in question was at the end of the street.

I unbuckled and opened the door.

Tomlinson’s phone rang. “Now they call,” he complained. He answered it. “Three blocks over? You want me to leave Liz here? Really? Fine.”

He put his phone away. “Ayesha says she has another manifestation three blocks away, but she believes we’ll have an apparition here.”

“Never split up the party,” I muttered.

“First rule of Dungeons and Dragons,” Tomlinson said. He may be ancient, but he was a fellow geek.

“But orders are orders,” I said.

“Now you sound like me, kid,” he said. I got out of the car, closed the door. “Stay sharp,” he told me.

“You, too.” He drove off, leaving me standing awkwardly on the sidewalk—the only adult without trick or treaters.

Watch and observe. Sometimes, much of the time, we had to do that. I fidgeted on the sidewalk. The minutes crawled by. The kiddy superheroes were only two doors away, now. The slouching teens had passed us on the far side of the street. Their technique was to go the front door of a house, ring the door bell, and hold out their hands, intoning, candy without even a please. I mean, I’m not a big Halloween fan, but that was downright disrespectful to the day. That was part of what was wrong with Halloween these days.

“Happy Halloween!” An elderly man with a knitted cap and mountain jacket walked past me, waving.

Where had he come from?”

“Yeah, Happy Halloween,” I mumbled.

The old guy stopped. His eyes twinkled in the street light.

“Not feeling the spirit of the night?”

“Not particularly,” I admitted. “I’m not into candy and all the overdone yard decorations.” I didn’t usually spill my guts to strangers, but something about his kindly grandfather aspect made me.

“That isn’t Halloween,” he said.

“No, it isn’t, not to me. But what’s it to you?”

He smiled a warm, knowing smile. “I suspect much like it is to you.”

That was a non-answer if ever I’d heard one. He turned and walked on.

What a strange man, I thought. I scuffed my boots on the sidewalk, then looked up. He had vanished into the night.

Screams erupted across the street. I whirled around. Panicked teenagers sprinted away from a darkened house across the street. The one teen wearing the cheesy president mask tripped on low hedge and tumbled onto the sidewalk, crying in pain. I rushed up to him, knelt down. “You okay?”

“My arm hurts,” the boy said, still wearing his mask had come off.

I examined his arm, gently touching it. “Looks like it’s bruised,” but if it still hurts tomorrow, you should have it checked out.”

He nodded.

I looked around. With all the yelling, I’d have expected house lights to come on, but everything was quiet.

“What happened?” I asked.

“The shadows came alive!” The boy’s voice cracked. “Really!”

I peered around me. I didn’t see any tell-tale sign of a manifestation. Tomlinson would be able to tell for sure, but he’d driven around the block.

Shadow manifestations were scary, but usually only around for seconds at level 1, the fleeting level. I should have heard a creaking or rustling, or seen blackness moving.

More screams erupted down the block, and the teens pounded back toward us. One girl’s hair streamed behind her, her mouth in a wide “O” of fear.

“It slithered against me,” she screamed. The houselights remained off. On the opposite side of the block the kid superheroes walked up the next house. They didn’t seem to notice the teens. Now that was really strange.

I stood up, raising a hand. “What slithered?” I called after the girl as she ran past.

“Shadows!”

A red-headed boy ran after her. “I saw a goblin! It snarled at me!” He raced away.

I took a few steps down the sidewalk toward where they’d been running from. Nothing.

Time for a spell. I caressed my amulet, felt the artifact stir. “Show me the magic,” I whispered in German.

The air hummed faintly around me. Silver light erupted around me. I blinked. Magic was everywhere. Why hadn’t I felt that before?”

I blinked again, trying to clear my vision. That was the problem with conjuring magical vision, you saw it. And while I saw it, I couldn’t see anything else.

“Cease,” I commanded. The light vanished.

My heart pounded. How had we not noticed that before? Especially Tomlinson. Had the magic just now erupted? I closed my eyes, took in a deep breath of the cool, crisp October night air.

Tomlinson hadn’t returned yet. Had he found a manifestation or two?

I pulled out my phone, called his number. It rang three times, went to voice mail. “Tommy, you there? What’s up? Give me a call ASAP.”

I hung up.

Something cackled high overhead. More teenaged screams down the block. A second group of teens in hoodies, fled toward me. A witch flew above them on a broomstick, wearing a tall pointed hat.

I reached into my jacket, and closed my fingers on my defensive talisman.

“Declare yourself!” I demanded in French. If it were a manifestation, it should come to a stop and do as I commanded. If were an actual witch, her magic would flare up. If it were an actual witch, she’d be going straight to the Silos. Flying around on a broomstick, Halloween or no Halloween, was a blatant violation of the rules.

The witch swooped down and landed beside me, smelling of strong herbs and straw. She hefted her broomstick like a staff.

“We have a believer,” she said, and cackled. A chill ran down my back.

I raised the talisman.

“No need for that, I’m only here to frighten,” she said. Another cackle and she vanished, taking her broomstick with her.

My heart hammered away.

I tried Tomlinson again, but nothing doing.

The kids had reached the house at the end of the block.

I forced my legs to move and ran after them.

They had reached the front door, which opened, and a kind-looking grandmother type stood there.

“Trick or treat!” The kids said in unison.

“Which do you prefer?” the old woman asked, with a warm smile. Her voice rang like a bell.

“Treats!” The children replied, young voices piping.

The adults with the children smiled. None of them seemed to notice me.

“I have apples for you to bob, if you’d like!”

“Yes, please!” The kids chorused.

The group trooped inside. The door remained open. I could hear the children’s happy voices and the adult’s gentle laughter.

I closed my open mouth. I’d never gotten to bob for apples. Mom thought it unsanitary.

“You could join them if you’d like,” the kindly old man said beside me.

I jumped, brandishing the talisman. The entryway was tight quarters for a shield summoning.

“No reason for that,” the old man said. “I’m not here to harm you.”

“Why are you here, then?” I demanded.

“I’m the spirit of Halloween,” he said.

I swallowed. “There’s no such thing.”

“There is indeed. A sorcerer such as yourself should know that, but you’ve let your unhappiness blind you to Halloween’s true spirit.”

“But what about all the people who just want to party and eat candy.”

The figure shrugged. “I do what I can.”

The spirit of Halloween. “I thought you were a myth.”

He smiled. “I am. But I’m also real.”

“Have you sworn on the Compact?” I blurted out the question.

“I’m far older than your compact,” he answered. Your rules and laws don’t apply to me.”

My stomach churned.

He raised a hand. “Do not fear, sorcerer. I am not here to harm anyone. Only fulfill the magic of the night. Nothing more. Believe in tonight. Believe in the power of fear and delight. It will renew you.”

Just like the witch had, he vanished into thin air.

An instant later, the entire neighborhood vanished, leaving only a grid of streets and a sign saying houses coming soon.

I blinked. Something supernatural had done a number on my head. That had been a very potent illusion.

The spirit of Halloween.

A quarter mile away I spotted Tomlinson’s Ford. It started up and wound its way through the grid of streets toward me.

Tomlinson arrived a minute later. He’d tried calling me, but I hadn’t answered. He’d seen a group of teenagers, dressed like kids from the fifties, running and screaming about skeletons and zombies.

The spirit of Halloween was real.

Someone at R.U.N.E. had decided we needed a lesson in belief. I wonder if it had been my mother.

Everyone knew Tomlinson and I were skeptics when it came to the Halloween spirit.

Well, we certainly had it, now.

 

END

 

Spice Crimes is re-published!

I’m a die-hard fantasy reader and writer, but I also love space opera, especially in the mold of the Firefly and Farscape TV shows. When I learned that Lindsay Buroker’s new novel series in 2016 was space opera adventure, I was there in a heart-beat. I very much enjoyed her rousing story line and her colorful characters.

Then she mentioned Amazon had approached her about creating a “Kindle World” for her Fallen Empire-verse and that she was looking for writers to contribute novels for that setting.

I jumped at the chance to write a novel featuring her hero Alisa Marchenko and the crew of the Star Nomad. I was inspired to create a stand-alone adventure that took place immediately after the end of her series. The story after the story, if you will.

My Fallen Empire novel Spice Crimes was originally published in April 2017, along with works by nine other authors. It garnered some nice reviews, but was limited to only being available in the Amazon US store.

I learned late this spring that Amazon would be closing down their Kindle Worlds program. All the many novels published in different author’s settings would be taken down. As the author of Spice Crimes, I had the rights to my story and my characters, but of course Lindsay owned the rights to her characters and the setting.

She wanted to see my book and the other stories and novels set in the Fallen Empire universe republished and encouraged me to do so, allowing us to keep our novels as written, which in my case meant that I could keep the story after the story about her hero Alisa, her friends, crew, and family.

Now, I’d done my best with the novel the first time, but had written it on a very tight deadline. It needed a fresh edit, as a few of the reviews indicated. So, I spent some time this month editing the book again, and feel it’s a better book for that.

What happens when a simple two-part cargo-hauling job with a tight deadline pays too well?

Captain Alisa Marchenko was ready to settle down to a quiet life of cargo hauling with her finance, Leonidas, her daughter and crew. Alisa’s troubles begin after the Star Nomad takes on a cargo of kitchen equipment on Baku Moon, and heads to pick up the second part of the shipment on Sherran Moon.

When the layover on Sherran Moon lasts longer than planned, the Nomad disappears out from under Alisa’s nose. With only the cyborg Leonidas and the Starseers Abelardus and Young-Hee to help her, she must find out why her ship vanished, what happened to the rest of her crew, and how the mysterious cargo ties into it all, or they’ll be stranded indefinitely.

So, Spice Crimes is now available again. Unlike before, when it was only in the Amazon US store, it’s now on all Amazon stores, as well as Apple, Kobo, Google Play, and Nook.

http://daleivansmith.com/book/spice-crimes-a-fallen-empire-title/

Finishing The Empowered and other news

It’s been a long time coming, but I’m now revising Empowered: Rebel, and will be sending it off my beta readers shortly. Wrapping up The Empowered series has been a journey in itself. Mathilda has come a long way since Renegade, when her sixteen-year old self first discovered her superpower and tried to run away from the world. She spent five years in Special Corrections working to keep her nose clean and be paroled. Paroled on her twenty-first birthday, she wanted nothing more to do with the Empowered, but of course, the world wouldn’t let her live a normal life. She was maneuvered into working for a secretive government agency and ordered to infiltrate a dangerous super villain group. Now, in the final book, she learns the truth behind the Empowered and the source of super powers, and fights to save her friends and family and the world itself.

Empowered: Rebel will be released on June 20th.

Along with that, I’m writing “Dynamo,” a short story about Alex Sanchez, one of Mat’s controllers in Support who becomes much more over the course of the four novels.

After this will be my new urban fantasy series, as well as a novel about Zoe Steele, the “almost ex-super villain” of my flash fiction story, “Coffee Shop Crisis.” I’ve received many emails and comments about my writing more about Zoe. I surveyed my reader group a little back about this and the majority of respondents want to read a novel about her. Recently I polled them about titles for the novel.

The results:

An Almost Ex-Super Villain was 1st with 36.7% of the vote.

“None of the above” came in at 2nd w with 22%.

Her Super Life was 3rd at 15%.

So, it looks like An Almost-Ex Super Villain will be the title! Do you like that? Let me know in comments.

Coffee Shop Crisis: Help me decide if I should write more!

My almost-ex super villain story “Coffee Shop Crisis” has been popular with readers. It was a fun story to write, one that started out simply as a test-drive for what became the Empowered series, only this one was much more classic superheroes and super villains with flashy super powers and even flashy costumes.

I’ve received emails and my reposting of the story here has gotten a lot of comments. People want more about Zoe Steele, the hero of the story. They loved her attitude and the four-color superhero world, and the fact that she was an “almost-ex” super villain. I’d like to know if you agree. So, I’ve set up a short survey here.

To the left is a possible cover for a possible novel featuring Zoe. Please help me decide whether I write more about her, and how much!

 

 

What I published in 2017

The first three Empowered novels, Empowered: Agent, Empowered: Traitor and Empowered: Outlaw, were all published in 2017. Whew! It was a busy, eventful year for me. Agent was released on January 31st, Traitor on March 21st, and Outlaw on November 20th. I also published Spice Crimes, a space opera novel set in Lindsay Buroker’s fantastically fun Fallen Empire universe for Amazon’s Kindle Worlds. It was a very fun challenge working with Lindsay’s characters.

I’m currently working on the final book in the series, Empowered: Rebel, due out (hopefully) in late March.